The Piano Lesson
Photos by Pamela Springsteen(left) and James Minchen
Its not as though aggressive rock & roll cant be squeezed out of a piano, from the boogie-woogie panic of Jerry Lee Lewis (who set his ax on fire long before Hendrix) to the treated hammering of John Cale. In spite of this perfectly unrespectable pedigree, pop music more often trades on the instruments place in more polite settings: the concert hall, the cocktail lounge, and even the family parlor in the decades before phonographs and radios. A rocker alone at the piano usually signifies some combination of sophistication, contemplativeness and sentimentality, from Imagine on down to Ben Folds. Want to come on sensitive, or just find some chords you cant reach on a guitar fretboard? Head for the eighty-eight.
The Randy Newman Songbook and Elvis Costellos North resonate with these associations, though in different registers. In some ways, its unfair to compare them: Newmans album comprises new, unaccompanied performances of material from the last 35 years, while Costellos consists of 11 new songs, written at the keyboard but orchestrated to showcase his newfound compositional skills. But both have the rich (in both senses) sound of a concert grand at their core no cathouse crackerboxes for these upscale artists.
Which brings us to another link. Appearing on prestige imprints of their respective multinationals, both albums are presented as something more than disposable pop product. (And lucky for them, as Costello and Newman are now of an age and appearance that makes teen-idolhood unlikely.) The Songbook project (two more volumes are planned) is Newmans first for Nonesuch, Time-Warners catchall for high-/low-culture straddlers from Laurie Anderson to Wilco. North bears the Yellow Label of Deutsche Grammophon. (Roll over, Beethoven . . .) This makes more sense if you know that the venerable classical label and Island/Def Jam, Costellos present home, are both tentacles of Universal Music Group.
You see? The recording industry isnt such a dragon. It only sues 12-year-olds for downloading nursery rhymes so it can do what it really wants to do, which is bring you these works of Serious (and likely unprofitable) Art. Yes, and everyone at Mobil loved Don Giovanni.
Randy Newman has built a career on spitting such contradictions right back at us. Following an untitled instrumental, Songbook shows us how seriously he takes this retrospective business with the mock-egotistical Lonely at the Top, written well before his real success as a performer. After this, he gets down to business, sifting through material familiar (You Can Leave Your Hat On) and obscure (Let Me Go, from a 1972 movie). The vocal performances are as expressively mealy as ever; the piano work is spot-on but rarely flashy. Mitchell Frooms production is so intimate that you can hear the sustain pedal pumping during the selections from Newmans film scores (Avalon, Ragtime).
Newman has recorded his share of contemporary-sounding pop-rock (Short People and I Love L.A., neither found here). But his musical reputation rests on his command of styles that hark back to an earlier, allegedly simpler America, as though the spirits of George M. Cohan and Stephen Foster had taken over the body of a Louisiana-born, Hollywood-bred secular Jew. His masterstroke has been to use the good-old-days connotations of ragtime and sentimental balladry to soften us up for the lyrical sucker punch. Even the lovely Marie, not so distant from Cohans Mary (Its a Grand Old Name), admits something the Yankee Doodle Dandy never would: Im drunk right now baby/But Ive got to be/Or I couldnt tell you/What you mean to me.
The barbs are more toxic when Newman turns to social and political themes. Those good old days? Not so good, for lots of people: the murdered child in Germany Before the War, the wogs enticed into the slave ship in Sail Away, and just about everybody on either side of the color line in the post-Reconstruction South. Rednecks, first heard on the 1974 concept album Good Old Boys (recently named by the Skynyrd-revivifying Drive-By Truckers as a key influence), is still unsettling nearly 30 years later. After seeing Georgia governor Lester Maddox kicked around on the Dick Cavett show, Newmans bigot pens a warts-and-all anthem to Dixie, complete with liberal or illiberal use of the N-word, that devolves into a list of Northern cities where African-Americans are allegedly better off. Hes free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/Free to be put in a cage on the south side of Chicago . . . Theyre gatherin em up for miles around/Keeping the niggers down, he concludes, while a rolling Scott Joplin piano riff blithely pumps away. Bold even for Newman, Rednecks still has the power to shock, and to force listeners to examine their own views and actions. It shatters the gentility of the great man and his songs setup like Gilbert Gottfried at a Friars Club roast.
Strong as these new performances are, longtime admirers may not actually need this album. Still, its worth hearing for the connections drawn between older songs and those from 1999s Bad Love. The World Isnt Fair finds the singer in his mansion on the hill, telling Karl Marxs ghost how pleased he is that capital has prevailed: The rich get richer/and the poor you dont ever have to see/It would depress us, Karl. As for preserving this arrangement, theres a suggestion in the next song, 1972s Political Science: They all hate us anyhow/So lets drop the big one now. As Newman has written elsewhere, that song is never out of date, unfortunately. Songbook would be a victory lap if it gave us anything to cheer about.
North, by contrast, is almost entirely apolitical, ahistorical and asocial. Hermetically sealed with a kiss, it excludes all non-romantic concerns. Thats fine no ones confiscating your copy of Olivers Army or Shipbuilding. The course of love isnt smooth throughout these songs, but the power struggles and recriminations that mark Costellos best-known lyrics are largely absent. Take Let Me Tell You About Her, in which he doesnt: Gentlemen dont speak of it, and this one never will. Fairly gallant, from someone who long ago admitted stirring up trouble in his personal life to generate raw material for songs.
This could be the first Elvis Costello album that is richer musically than lyrically. North isnt exactly an attempt to go legit Deutsche Grammophon aside but its too ambitious to work as adult-contemporary wallpaper. Except for some overripe introductions, Costello uses the orchestral palette with restraint, framing a small combo of ex-Attraction Steve Nieve, jazz drummer Peter Erskine and various bassists. The closest comparison may be to the misty, muted settings Alex Stordahl wove for Sinatra at his post-Dorsey crooniest.
Next to the vernacular ease of Newmans melodies, Costellos are wildly convoluted, backed with as many tricky harmonic shifts as Armed Forces had puns. The Great American Songbook is in the mix, but so are Schubert, Sondheim and Joni Mitchell. When these songs falter, its less often the fault of the tunes or the words themselves than the way theyre combined. Strained diction (Wits may sharpen up/their cuts and clever flays) and rhymes that dont merit being called off (fracture/statue?) might whip by unnoticeably at Get Happy! tempos, but in a carefully sung ballad theyre harder to ignore.
When everything clicks, however, North isnt just respectable, its moving. Fallen, a thematic cousin to Vernon Dukes Autumn Leaves, rambles through the amber and the burnished gold with a well-placed bloom of strings after the bridge. The closing In the Mood Again, just Costello at the piano and an atmospheric vibraphone, shoots down several of the above generalizations. Formally, its as tight as any Broadway warhorse, and its Manhattan setting and cautious optimism offer the albums sole hint that the world contains more than two people. Think Bruces The Rising filtered though the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally.
Someone Took the Words Away, fittingly, has the discs best purely instrumental passage, an inventive sax solo couched in strings, à la some high-toned Norman Granz production. Without checking the credits, Id never have guessed the player: Lennie Tristano sideman and cool-jazz icon Lee Konitz. Theres a whiff of cultural striving about some of Costellos recent teamings, notably his iffy album with soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, though theres no doubting his respect for the musicians he works with. But the Konitz solo is no look-who-I-know (or who-I-can-afford) cameo; its a generous place in the spotlight for an underappreciated master. Now thats class.
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